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Fearne Cotton: ‘I’ve been to hell and back’

A regular fixture on TV and radio since the late ’90s, her award-nominated podcast Happy Place has taken the audio world by storm but life hasn't always been smooth sailing she tells The Big Issue
Fearne Cotton

Fearne Cotton has been a permanent fixture on the UK’s TV and radio since the ’90s, whether introducing kids TV or hosting national radio.

But it has rarely been easy, she tells Jane Graham. Catapulted into presenting at the age of 15 after winning a competition with Disney, she battled imposter syndrome in her teens then depression into her 30s.

She has channelled those troubles into podcast Happy Place in recent years, however, and found a new sense of stability from talking openly about what’s troubled her.

Here’s what Fearne Cotton would have to say in a letter to her younger self.

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I had this really pivotal moment at 15 when I went from being a regular kid in school, who had a real passion for dance and drama, to being catapulted into the world of TV. Somebody at my local weekend drama club told me there were auditions for presenters on Disney. I went with very low expectations. There were a lot of kids from the big stage schools like the Brit school and Sylvia Young so I thought, I don’t stand a chance here. But somehow I managed to get through.

I really didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing though. I was winging it. I just knew I wanted to be as successful as my TV heroes, people like Zoe Ball, Davina [McCall], Chris Evans. I was loving every minute, but I didn’t feel like “I’ve found my place there and this is what I should be doing”. It felt like I’d woken up in a weird dream and I just walked into the telly. And there I suddenly was, interviewing B*Witched or the Spice Girls.

I can still vividly picture the moment I found out I had the job at Disney. There were three people up for the last audition, which was an on-air interview with Andi Peters. Later on TV they announced who’d got the job. So I was just watching with my family, all sat in the front room in my house in the suburbs in Eastcote in north-west London. And I was thinking, I’m really crapping myself here but I doubt it’s going to be me, so let’s not get too excited. So when they said my name out loud, me, my mum, dad and brother, we just went bonkers. We were jumping about, screaming. It was like something out of a film.

Here I was, just a regular kid going about my life, with a deep desire and passion to work in this industry. Then all of a sudden, out of the blue, this moment happens. It was really special.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a work high like it since. That first yes or foot in the door is the best, it really is. And I’m still trying to keep my foot in the door now, quite frankly, 

My only real preoccupation at the time was work. I didn’t want to do anything else. I didn’t go out and drink in the park with my mates, I missed my school prom, I didn’t go to many birthday parties, because I was so focused on not cocking up this amazing experience and opportunity.

I’m a bit of a nerd anyway, I’ve always been studious when it comes to the things I love. So I would go to bed really early and make sure I’d had enough sleep and learn all my lines. And I was also trying to do my GCSEs at the same time, which was not ideal.

From the start I definitely had this anxiety that I didn’t belong. I remember so clearly standing in the studio looking around thinking, how are they so accomplished, how are these pop bands taking up that space and feeling really solid about it?

I feel like I’m still the suburban schoolgirl. And I felt that until I got into my 30s, I’m not joking. It’s really only since I started doing Happy Place [her interview podcast focusing on mental health] that I really felt I could occupy this space confidently.

Later I realised that lots of people feel like that. So many of us go along, silently worrying we don’t fit in, and not saying it out loud. Actually there’s a real liberation in just saying it and having this person who you assume is incredibly confident saying they feel the same. You realise we’re all in the same boat. It’s really lovely knowing that.

It makes me feel a bit sad thinking back to the naively optimistic 16-year-old I was.  As a young kid, all through my teens and most of my 20s, I had this really beautiful soft naivety that I’ve definitely lost now.

It really allowed me to see the best in people, and to believe that anything was possible, and to dream really big. That really helped me keep moving forward in my career for a long time because I wasn’t willing to accept the word no or to give up. I always felt like I could try again.

I did have a couple of things change in me as I went into my 30s. Firstly, women’s hormones change dramatically round about 35. There’s a huge sudden descent which can result in depression or anxiety. And for me specifically, there were lots of things in my late 20s, early 30s that I felt really not OK about.

I dropped into this depression for a couple of years and I had to sort of start from scratch again. It was quite a drastic disenchantment. I didn’t believe in all the dreams I had previously held. I didn’t believe in the myths of what the job or the industry meant. I didn’t believe in the grandeur of it. I didn’t believe in having this insane fear-based respect for everybody in it.

I just dropped all of that, and wanted to start again. And that was terrifying, but it’s been essential in me ending up where I am now, doing a job I care deeply about.

I had a bit of an emotional collapse when I was going through that time of being constantly papped by the newspapers. It was really intense in my 20s. I had a very unhealthy relationship with the press.

You feel misrepresented and misunderstood, which is a really horrible feeling. And you lose your sense of who you are. You’re so busy trying to be what everybody else wants you to be, and to avoid being attacked. So you do your best to remain small and quiet yet live a life, and you actually forget who you are. Now I don’t care, people can say what they want.

I’ve been to hell and back, so now it’s about being me and if people don’t like that, it’s really none of my business. My business is to do what makes me tick. I don’t go anywhere exciting or glamorous. I’m a homebody. I build my life around my house and my family and that’s what makes me feel really happy. That’s the only way to stay sane.

Luckily, having children gave me such perspective it was the healthiest thing that could have happened to me. I could just focus on what I gave a shit about. It’s obviously exhausting and can be really hard to navigate in the modern world, but I was really lucky in that I gained two stepchildren before I became a mother. So I had this really nice tester period of sharing my time with four people, and feeling like an extra layer of support.

I have a beautiful relationship with my step-kids and I feel very lucky every day about that. Family life has cemented me in the arena that I that I really care about – family connection, love, support. It was all there before but life was so busy and hectic that those ties became weaker and weaker. Travelling around the world so often, I wouldn’t get to see my actual family that much. As soon as I had step-kids and then my own kids that all just stopped and I said no, I’m not going anywhere.

If I could travel back to any moment in my life it would be when I was on holiday in Mexico with my best mate Lolly about 10 years ago. We’d both had a bit of a rocky time – I’d just come out of a failed engagement. She was in the shower, and I was sat outside our lovely little hut near the beach with a beer, just looking at the sky on this beautiful sunny balmy evening. And I just had this moment of unexpected euphoria.

There was no particular reason to feel happy; obviously I was in a lovely location but there wasn’t anything on my horizon to look forward to, there wasn’t anything in the past that I was especially happy about. It was just cinematic. I’ve thought about that moment so many times because it was so perfect and gorgeous, but it wasn’t connected to anything happening in my life. It was just this very powerful euphoria for no reason. I’ve never forgotten about it and I often daydream back to that moment, and I would love to relive it.

Fearne Cotton has curated Happy Place: The Album, which has been released on Decca